Hero photograph
Robin Sutton, Principal
Photo by Hornby High School

Principal's Comment

Robin Sutton —

Hopefully this year you will forgive me if I perhaps indulge in a little more reflection than is usual at this time of year, but this will be my last Yearbook comment while at Hornby High School, and there is much to reflect upon.

When I finish at the end of term 1 2023, I will have been Principal for seven years. That’s a long time, it’s seven years spent in what a good friend and colleague (rightly in my opinion) describes as the best job ever.

In that time we have rebuilt the physical fabric of Hornby High School. More significantly we have re-invented Hornby High School as a different place. In doing this, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to ‘stand on the shoulders of a giant’ in Mr Dick Edmondson, my predecessor, who did much of the hard mahi so that I might do the cool mahi. I am also grateful to the Board who took a chance on me as a new Principal. I hope that I have been able in some measure to lead our kura on its journey of improvement with the bold vision and leadership which I think you sought.

He puna auaha, a centre of creative excellence. What a bold, gutsy vision for a kura. And you are perhaps asking yourself why? It is my fervently held evidenced based belief that one of the keys to improvement in schools is creativity. There is now ample evidence to show that a focus on creativity supports improved well being and improved academic outcomes for learners.

It’s odd, really. I used to be an economics teacher, with a bit of maths and accounting on the side, and back in the day there didn’t seem to be too much scope for creativity. I think I was a reasonable teacher (my students seemed to think so). When thinking of my own teaching I was reminded of this story.

Pablo Casals, the famous Spanish cellist who lived to be 97 years of age, when he reached 95, was interviewed by a young reporter who threw him a question: “Mr. Casals, you are 95 and the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” And Mr. Casals answered, “Because I think I'm making progress.”

This all focuses the mind on the really really big question: what is the purpose of schools? In decades past the answer was to create nice compliant little units of production, worker bees if you like, who could do simple mechanical jobs, who did exactly as they were told unquestioningly, took as few breaks as possible, and were therefore highly productive. Gosh what good chappies they all were.

However today, technology is replacing a lot of the tasks that people were being ‘educated’ for over the 150 years of public education in Aotearoa. So what?

My ‘reckon’ is that this leaves us with a need to focus on what makes us human. For my money, it’s the ability to empathise with and relate to other human beings, and the ability to be creative, although there is technology that is now challenging that too.

As we progress as a species, we face ever more complex problems that are often of our own making. How do we solve those problems? We don’t solve them by being nicely compliant units that never think outside the square. We solve them by being creative, by thinking outside the square, and by being kind and empathetic towards our fellow human beings.

Now before you launch into me about what schools should teach, let’s be clear about this. You need to know stuff in order to be creative. You need to be literate and numerate, and you have to have subject knowledge. You can’t think in a vacuum, you can’t think unless you have stuff to think about. I have a fabulous example. A good friend of mine is a fresh water biologist. In his work they need to know what species live in freshwater streams. In the past they’d take water samples, look at them under a microscope, and see what they could see. He teamed up with a geneticist. They each had their deep specialist knowledge. They figured out that by taking a couple of water samples, and analyzing the DNA fragments in the water, they could get a more accurate picture of what stream life there was, and at a far lower cost. They each brought their deep specialist knowledge to the problem, and developed a new creative solution.

So you have to KNOW STUFF.

I don’t think it's too important what vehicle you use to develop creativity either. Every subject can do it. Whether it’s the creative or performing arts, technology, writing and literature, sciences, maths .. It’s possible everywhere. How do you think mathematicians develop and prove new theorems? Creativity!!! I was so thrilled this year to see our first ever creative maths week. I contributed my own wee pieces, some of you may recall, with a series of limericks about maths.

If creativity is to be allowed to develop, we require quite a few personal characteristics, but I suspect they are not what you think. One that we try to focus on across the school is the willingness to take risks with our learning. Every time you put something out there you take a risk, the risk of being criticized. I write free verse poetry. I wrote this while thinking about creativity in schools. In writing it here, I am taking a risk. Think about that.

Te puna auaha


for a while


long eyed

into the distance,

at nothing,

from where you draw

splashes of

red and blue,

melancholy notes,

cogs and codes

and props and words,

sworls and smiles

and scientific guile,

let your mind wander

along the endless

winding trails

feel the thrill as you

tack before the fiercest winds

allow yourself to

soak in the

steaming warmth

of the deepest




for a while




te puna auaha

I have come to the conclusion that creativity in schools is less a series of prescribed outcomes than a way of being, a state of mind, in which we nurture and encourage risk taking, lateral, critical, and creative thinking, and a preparedness to simply ‘be’, to stare into that nothingness. We seem unlikely to solve the world’s new problems with old ways of thinking. Those old ways of thinking perhaps largely created the problems we face today.

As I prepare to leave Hornby High School I know that the job is not finished. It will never be finished. However I can step back knowing that we have made great progress. There is plenty more to come, plenty more mahi to do, and plenty more scope for improvement.

The road ahead is not however set to be a smooth one. Reactionary social and political forces are gathering and I fear they will drive us back to that time in the not too distant past when measuring student achievement was seen as the cure-all for educational performance. When I taught here at Hornby in the 90’s I had the privilege of working with Mr Henry Sunderland who at that time was Head of Art. He used to say ‘we spend too much time weighing the pig and not enough time feeding it’. Educational attainment is not improved by continuous measurement. Educational attainment is improved when we improve the material living condition of people, when we grow positive relationships for learning, and when we inspire curiosity and creativity.

Thanks, Hornby, for the journey. As they say, ‘it’s been a blast’. I’d like to wish every member of our community, our extended whānau, a fabulous future, one that each of you creates, one in which every one of you continues to have faith in, continues to feed, your sense of creativity.